We autistic people are often good at stressing ourselves out. When we lose track, the same thoughts keep popping into our heads over and over again. Stress builds up and we can’t manage to calm ourselves down. When we ask for help, others say, “Don’t worry!”, or ” You’ll be fine!” Well intended, but perhaps the most unhelpful thing someone can say at times like that. “What do you mean, it will be fine?! How can you possibly know?!”, my head screams. Below are some questions that might actually help when an autistic person is stuck in their thoughts.
1. What are you afraid of?
Before you start saying everything will be alright, ask what the person is afraid of. Sometimes we don’t even know ourselves what we are afraid of, and it helps to get it clear. After all, you can’t solve a problem until you formulate it properly.
(By the way, you can also use these questions if you are the autistic person in question. They regularly help me get things clear or put things into perspective. If stressing thoughts keep popping up, you can also write them down. I mean, why do you think this blog exists? ;))
2. What is the worst that could happen?
You may be inclined to not assuming the worst, but for autistic people it can actually be helpful. Precisely by honestly looking at a worst-case scenario, the things you would have to do then, and how plausible it is that such a thing would happen, an autistic person can calm down.
I used to be easily stressed at the idea of missing a train or flight. Everything would go haywire then, and that would be Very Bad, according to my brain. The truth is, I didn’t look beyond that missed train, and the fill-in-the-blank exercise of “Yes, then what?” helped me tremendously to see things in perspective. What happens when you miss a train or flight? Yes, you have to buy a new ticket. In the case of the last train, you may even have to pay for a cab or hotel. And you’re going to be late, so you have to notify people about that. Annoying, for sure. But if you have an emergency budget, not the terrible disaster you were afraid of.
3. Do all these things have to be done now?
If someone gets stuck with a list of things to do, ask if all those things really need to be done now. Some things are not so urgent, can be shelved or cancelled. Some things can be done later. Most of the time, no one is going to die.
4. What can be done right away?
Is everything in chaos and does the autistic person in question not know where to start? Then ask if there is a simple task that can be solved immediately, and suggest starting with that.
For autistic people reading this: Are you dreading an email? 99% chance it will be relieving to take care of it right away. Are there five tasks that all seem equally urgent? Pick one and start working on it. Basically, it doesn’t matter which one, and yes, the four tasks you don’t do will continue to nag at you for a while, but know that you’re objectively making progress.
5. Shall we make a list or flowchart together?
“But X depends on Y and in turn Y depends on Z…!” Often when an autistic person gets stuck, it is because certain tasks depend on other tasks, making the whole thing a kind of tangle most reminiscent of a bulletin board in a thriller detective, with pictures of suspects, locations, and physical red threads stretched between the various pins. Make a list together to create an overview, and put the tasks in order.
When I had just moved to Japan, my life was total chaos. For example, I had to get a particular service subscription, but it could only be paid for with a Japanese credit card. To get a business credit card, I had to show my business registration – but to start my business and register, I had to have a personal Japanese bank account first. To use online banking, in had to download an app that could only be found in the Japanese app store. But would I switch my phone to this app store, where only Japanese credit cards were accepted as a payment method, I suddenly had no way to pay for my other Apple services. To get a personal Japanese credit card, I had to upload a copy of my MyNumber card. I had to wait weeks for that card.
As you can read, this was quite stressful. Now I’m not going to say that a list solves everything, but it certainly gave me more peace of mind when I had all this info put into an organized flow chart. Right now I have a similar list in my phone for the English translation of Deze autist ging naar Japan. I couldn’t live without it.
6. What do you need to do the task?
When an autistic person gets stuck on a task, ask what it takes to get it done. The answer is sometimes surprisingly simple. A quick trip to the post office? Asking the person you’re meeting with in advance where you’re going to eat, and agreeing on an exit strategy? Getting garbage bags from the store so the autistic person can continue cleaning?
When I still lived with Riemer, I often got stuck because my plan (cooking, cleaning…) required a trip to the store, and I couldn’t make that switch at that moment. Riemer, on the other hand, was often fine with a quick trip to the store, if it meant that afterwards I could cook that nice meal for us, do the laundry or clean up the house. For a long time I thought this division of labor made me lazy, but now I mostly see it as a solution that worked well for us.
7. Do you need to eat and/or drink?
Autistic people often do not know when they are hungry or thirsty, but hunger, thirst and sleep do have an enormous impact on the amount of executive functions available to them. Is the autistic person feeling overwhelmed? Maybe you just need to feed them first, and they’ll be fine after that.
Or don't ask questions at all...
Sometimes someone is so stuck in their thoughts that any question is too much. Then it can be nice when someone else decides what to do. When I lived with my ex Mark, and he asked me if I wanted to watch something on TV, my answer was usually “no”. But if he just put something on by himself, it regularly happened that I started watching along anyway. When I still lived at home, my mother decided what we ate. Not always my favorite dish, but at least I didn’t have to choose. Sometimes it is wonderful not to have to think about anything. It gives our poor, overworked brains a break.
Caution: don’t push people over their limits, it’s harmful and counterproductive. This tip is for the pros only.